Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Plague

by Barbara Gaskell Denvil

The nursery rhyme ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ has a lot to answer for. As far as can be ascertained, this emanates from 19th century America, but the popular modern supposition is now that it refers to the sufferings of the Plague, thus describing the common symptoms (rings of roses and a-tishu), followed by falling down dead. Cheery! But entirely erroneous.

Indeed, one of the greatest catastrophes ever to alter England’s history was neither war nor dynastic challenge. The bubonic plague which first arrived in England in the 14th century and is now known as the Black Death, originally also the Great Mortality and the Pestilence, changed the whole country and its population, the politics and almost every aspect of everyday living conditions. The absolute terror which this first sudden visitation wreaked on the whole of Europe can be barely imagined. But outbreaks of this dreadful disease reappeared sporadically and frequently over the next few hundred years until its final catastrophic visitation in England in 1665, after which it appears to have quite mysteriously died out. The bubonic plague has revisited some other countries however, with occasional outbreaks even in the recent past, yet the actual sufferings of the people are now persistently misunderstood.

Indeed, plague victims did not sneeze and quickly die. The rash did not consist of large florid circles, and actually the word posies in past history did not refer to small bunches of flowers, but to short poems. There are many first hand contemporary references to this terrible disease and its effects, and also modern accounts both scientific and colloquial. Therefore researching this particular subject is not too difficult. (Indeed, I’ve studied the latter half of 15th century and medieval England for so many years, and have written several books of historical fiction set in that period and my novel SATIN CINNABAR by BARBARA GASKELL DENVIL has recently been published online for Kindle and all other e.book formats and devices.)

There are several related forms of the plague, and recently some experts have suggested that the original Black Death was not the bubonic but another similar kind, or even a combination of infections. Others argue that the affliction was indeed the bubonic type, but of a more lethal and unpleasant strain than is presently in existence. However, the symptoms are all sufficiently identical. The bubonic plague was not passed directly between humans and was contagious only via the rodent flea, but the flea was numerous in most human habitations, so the specific cause of infection mattered little. Besides, if the bacteria affected the lungs, this became pneumonic plague, and the sputum was then contagious human to human. Indeed, those thus infected, those desperate souls now dismissed by some writers as suffering from sneezes and the occasional bubo, did instead
suffer from some of the most hideous and agonising symptoms I can imagine.

Once the infected rats had died in large numbers, the fleas carrying the bacteria inevitably looked for other hosts. Humanity, living in close proximity and with generally poor standards of hygiene, was the next step. It seems there was a four to six day incubation period from the moment of actual infection, during which time this horrible condition usually localised, occurred virtually every 15 to 20 years in some area or another. Where this occurred in highly populated areas (such as London) the death toll could still be alarmingly high. The threat of this appalling disease therefore continued and must have haunted people, especially those who saw it as a punishment from God. Throughout the final epidemic in 1665/6, definitely the worst since its very first arrival in the country in 1348, great pits were dug on the outskirts of towns to take the piled corpses. Many of these plague pits have later been uncovered in England, sometimes unearthed due to the subsidence of a building’s foundations unknowingly erected on this unsound ground.

No one knows why the plague then died out in England. Hygiene did not noticeably
improve for some time afterwards, and the supposition that the Great Fire of London in 1666 was the cleansing miracle, is not supported by experts. But the plague has never devastated England since.

Researching and writing about this dreadful suffering is heartbreaking. I cannot possibly contemplate the utter terror and hopeless misery caused throughout plague affected areas during those 400 relevant years from the 14th to the 17th centuries, and the confusion, terror and bitter loss experienced by both those poor souls afflicted, and by those left alive to mourn the mass deaths of their loved ones.

And not a sneeze in sight.

My own medieval adventure SATIN CINNABAR
and those novels to follow (SUMERFORD’S AUTUMN) will be published online next
year) do not so far contain accounts of the plague, but a passion for research inevitably leads beyond the detailed events of any novel. I personally believe that an understanding of the times combined with insight into contemporary conditions is the only route to writing believable atmosphere.




  1. I have read a few sordid descriptions of the effects of this plague on the sufferer and I just cannot imagine the terror and misery it wrecked amongst the people. *shiver*

    I had heard the Great Fire was a big part of ridding London of the plague too. It makes a kind of sense with all the poor neighborhoods burned to the ground, but then again, it was people who carried the infection.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Fascinating. And, Barbara, your writing style is pure joy to read.

  3. Also, after the plague of 1665, the little black rat was replaced by the larger brown rat. I've read the black rat lived in close proximity to people, but the brown is more reclusive...

  4. I have no idea why, but I've always been fascinated with the Black Plague. I, too, cannot imagine not knowing where or who it would strike next, and having to watch people dying all around me. Horrible.
    Thank you for sharing your research, it was very interesting!

  5. After helping daughter do a report on the Plauge, we found out, and Sad to say, but the Bubonic Plague is Alive and Kicking in Northern New Mexico/Southern Colorado regions of the USA. Check with World Health Organization WHO if traveling/hiking there,(some California Areas & Middle Eastern Countries too). There is a cure now, but Can be fatal one in four if not caught in time. Great Article BTW!

  6. Thanks for such an interesting article. I am always sad when authors do not treat thier readers with sufficiant respect to do some proper research before writing thier books. I have read several refering to sneezes or the first signs of the plague (Ken Follett for one). Now I know the truth!

  7. Barbara Gaskell DenvilDecember 22, 2011 at 9:03 PM

    Many thanks to everyone for commenting. And Katherine Ashe - what an exceptionally kind thing to say - thank you very much.
    Yes, unfortunately the plague is still around in many areas of the world, but at least now medical science understands and can treat and cure it.
    Thanks again - and HAPPY CHRISTMAS !!


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